Chargers Kicker Younghoe Koo's Story Is Familiar for Many Korean-Americans

Joon LeeStaff WriterSeptember 13, 2017

Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

Andy Kwon liked to yell things at Younghoe Koo across the locker room at Georgia Southern.

Some days it would just be a simple, "Anyong!" a morning hello in Korean to greet his friend. Others, he'd walk past his locker and say, "Mo-hago inni?" asking his friend what he was up to on that given day.

The locker room served as home for something rarely found in Division I football: two South Korean football players, both first-team All-Conference selections.

Koo, whose name is pronounced Young-hway, became even more of a story Monday night, making his debut as the Los Angeles Chargers kicker, the fourth Korean-born player in NFL history with John Lee, Hines Ward and Kyle Love.

The 22-year-old is used to being one of a few, however. On their college campus of more than 20,000, Koo and Kwon were among an estimated 25 students of Korean nationality. Given their status as star athletes, the pair decided to always have each other's backs.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

When Kwon's parents sent over Korean food, they'd cook it together. With the closest Korean restaurant hours away, they never knew when they'd be able to next eat some of their favorite foods.

From time to time, they'd turn on the latest K-Pop in the weight room, always eliciting a chuckle out of one another. On the field, the pair excelled, bonding closer over their shared goals.

"I wanted to show people that Koreans and Asians can play this game. On the field, they don't see your face and watch us play," Kwon said.

"Once I take off my helmet, they notice I'm Korean, and for some of the guys, especially at big schools, they respected me even more because they knew I was Korean and knew I was doing well on the field. That's the same for Koo."

STATESBORO, GA - NOVEMBER 28:  Punter Ryan Nowicki #49 of the Georgia Southern Eagles holds the ball for kicker Younghoe Koo #9 during a field goal attempt against the South Alabama Jaguars during the third quarter on November 28, 2015 at Paulson Stadium
Todd Bennett/Getty Images

The issues of identity never became a main talking point in conversation for Koo and Kwon, but the friends were always aware. They knew they were going to stick out in a sport where just 2.1 percent of college athletes identified as Asian-American. They talked about life and school. They talked about their families.

When Koo's mom came to games, she would sit with the Kwons. They formed a silent solidarity.

"We'll always back each other up," Kwon said. "Whenever he's having a hard time, I know that's one guy that will always have my back no matter what since we're Korean and knew each other so well."

Koo's story starts off like many Korean-Americans.

His parents, Hyungseo Koo, a business professor at Induk University in Seoul, and Seungmae Choi, a nurse, wanted their son to have the best education possible. They decided to move to the United States, where Choi would follow their son to Ridgewood, New Jersey, a short ride away from New York City. Hyungseo, meanwhile, would stay behind in Seoul, visiting for a few months every year.

John Byon remembers Koo's first year in the United States—and the recess that changed everything. In sixth grade Byon, also Korean-American, invited Koo to play football at recess with him and some other kids. Knowing their new classmate played soccer, they invited him to kick off. Koo took the ball and punted it, and the ball flew. And flew. And flew.

"I s--t you not, it was straight out of The Sandlot. Straight out of a sports movie," Byon said. "The ball just flew over the field we were playing in and over the fence. It was like, 'Oh my god. You have to play football.'"

Koo soon joined the football team and became a star wide receiver and cornerback. In eighth grade, Koo's kickoffs would fly more than 50 yards on the 80-yard pee-wee field, forcing teams to touchback.

At football games, Choi would sit with Byon's parents, two of the few people she talked to regularly. They didn't have any other family in the United States, so they enjoyed their kids' football games together.

"Because we were involved in sports, we weren't as attached to the Korean-American community," Byon said. "We got each other. That was unique. That was part of the relationship. Even if we didn't explicitly talk about [it], there was a degree of understanding we carry with us."

By seventh grade, people around town began asking whether Koo could one day turn pro. By his freshman year, they knew he would. Two games in, Koo took over the starting kicking job and never let go.

He also developed into a strong player on both sides of the ball, earning first-team All-North Jersey honors as a cornerback and developing into the team's best receiver, according to head coach Chuck Johnson.

MOBILE, AL - SEPTEMBER 20: Place kicker Younghoe Koo #9 of the Georgia Southern Eagles kicks the ball off during their game against the South Alabama Jaguars on September 20, 2014 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. The Georgia Southern Eagles def
Michael Chang/Getty Images

Soon, the calls started coming from colleges.

Virginia, Temple and Rutgers all offered walk-on spots, with the potential to earn a scholarship. That didn't satisfy Koo or his parents, who hoped to have their son's education paid for before he even stepped on campus.

Meanwhile, at Georgia Southern, head coach Jeff Monken needed a strong kicker.

The Eagles had lost a handful of games in the past few seasons by the difference of a field goal. Monken invited Koo, one of the best high school kickers in the country, to campus for a visit. The head coach reached out to Korean-American faculty on campus and invited them to dinner with the Koos.

Professor Jin-Woo Kim remembers talking to Koo's parents about why coming down south was the best opportunity, assuring their son would have a support system.

"Most Korean students have strong connections and affinity for their parents," Kim said. "Meeting with Korean students' family members' parents is always a good experience for me, and Younghoe's case was one of the most important selections for Georgia Southern."

Dec 23, 2015; Mobile, AL, USA;  Georgia Southern Eagles place kicker Younghoe Koo (9) celebrate after defeating the Bowling Green Falcons in  the 2015 GoDaddy Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Georgia Southern won 58-27. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Andrews-USA TO
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

Koo chose Georgia Southern, and Choi moved from Ridgewood to Buford, Georgia, to be close to her son.

Koo and Professor Kim periodically texted over KakaoTalk, a Korean messaging service, over his four years. During the second semester of Koo's senior year, they began getting lunch and dinner together more frequently, talking about the senior's potential future in football.

Meanwhile, Koo and Kwon chased their dreams. They both received NFL minicamp invites—Koo as a kicker from the Chargers, Kwon as an offensive lineman from the Arizona Cardinals. Kwon soon became a graduate assistant at the University of Akron after he didn't make the cut, but he knew that Koo had as good a chance as anyone.

When Koo won the Chargers' starting job, Kwon and Byon both knew their friend had an opportunity to become much more than just a kicker for Korean-Americans.

"It's not weird to me, though," Kwon said. "I knew he was going to be in this position."

Koo's story, in many ways, represents the modern Korean-American journey. He speaks with a uniquely American accent, Korean with a southern twang, the fusion of his two homes. He grew up in an upper-middle-class town with a strong school system, naturally making the district a hot spot for Korean immigrants. It created a weird social dynamic, according to Byon, and they struggled to find a sense of social identity.

It's just the beginning for Koo, as only Denver Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris' forearm blocked him from likely sending his NFL debut Monday Night Football game into overtime.

While kicker John Lee flamed out of the league after one season, many, from his friends to his high school coach, see Koo's talent and expect him to be a mainstay in the NFL for a long time.

While kicking field goals for a long time can have a major impact on a football team, Byon said Koo's lasting legacy could be his impact on expanding the narrow idea of which careers Korean-Americans can or will pursue.

Aug 13, 2017; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers place kicker Younghoe Koo (9) looks on during the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

"I would love for more Koreans to pursue special and different things like football, non-traditional careers and [get] involved in sports," Byon said.

"It's more difficult; you need a supportive family, and you have to have parents that can drive you to practice. That was a big deal. It's not doctor, it's not lawyer, it's not finance. I hope he does really well."

Now, as an NFL kicker, Koo holds a major opportunity. His platform allows him to expand the idea of what it means to be a Korean-American. Both Byon and Kwon understand this—how Koo's mere presence in the league makes him a trailblazer for young Koreans in America.

"It's exciting for me," Koo told Greg Beachem of the Associated Press. "Obviously there aren't that many [Korean players in football]. Hopefully it will start the trend a little bit, and have people out there playing and see if we can get that going. But I love to represent."

"He's not just representing himself," Kwon said. "He's representing Georgia Southern. He's representing New Jersey. He's representing his whole country."